“Hurt an artist, and you’ll see masterpieces of what you’ve done” - unknown
This is not the first thing I wanted to talk about here, but this is the experience life has handed me lately, and it has been cathartic to get deeply curious about the collective human experience, as, to quote another famous artist from my youth: “Everybody hurts”. -Michael Stipe
About four months ago, my life suddenly became flooded with more loss than I could cope with. I won’t slog through the specifics, but every instance I felt like I could finally come to peace with one horrible thing, another wave washed over, and sent me tumbling, and searching for the surface, hoping to get a breath or two. When I eventually found air again, I immediately took an active role in righting myself, but I knew the hard work of processing and coming into balance with all of these changes still lay at my feet. It’s been lonely and uncomfortable sifting through this pile of new truths, but as I am human, like the billions of people who came before me, I thought perhaps the artifacts of historical sadness and loss left behind from those of us who make things with our hands could offer some wisdom, grace, and another insight into what drives creative people to work.
The “tortured artist” is an unnecessary stereotype, but it is certainly the first thing that comes to mind when we imagine the art world. Stark examples like Vincent VanGogh, or Jean-Michel Basquiat are the first to pop into our hive awareness. The reality is that sadness touches us all regardless of status, or station. As a mechanic repairs cars, or a plumber fits pipes, it’s an artist’s job to express themselves. When the inevitable hardship of life comes along in a creative person’s experience, we get to see it, identify with it, and even use it as an expression of our own grief when we need to. Mexico’s beloved Frida Kahlo was the very first maker that I thought of when I started researching this topic. She was talented at expressing her personal grief and pain in both words, and of course, visually. When she was asked about her physical pain and suffering, she responded famously with:
“I suffered two grave accidents in my life: one in which a streetcar knocked me down…The other accident is Diego.”
Her husband Diego Rivera was a famous liar and philanderer who, according to history, seemed to enjoy inflicting emotional pain on the women who fell in love with him.
In 1946, after experiencing a long string of disappointment, and the failure of a surgical operation that she thought might cure her of chronic physical pain, Frida painted “The Wounded Deer''. As I am from the midwestern part of North America, and witnessed injured and dying white tail deer as a daily part of life, the vulnerability and agony in this painting has always been palpable to me.
When we look at this, we’re allowed to slough off the “nobody died” mentality that toxic positivity forces down our throats. Frida gives us all permission to mourn any loss that hurts. The right to grieve isn’t afforded only to the bereaved. The loss of a job, an exciting possibility, a chance for freedom, a lost pleasure, an illness, or simply a life change we didn’t want are all painful experiences. She is validating her own pain, and in the same brush strokes, ours too.
We’re lucky to have this beautiful remnant of her heartbreak, so we can connect with her human experience. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Swiss American psychiatrist said that “Being in the throes of grief is similar to being lost at sea”. The Goshen College maple scholars journal commented that “connecting to Frida’s hurt and pain, even just through a painting can often be instrumental in understanding our own and help bring us back to the world”.
A good amount of the world’s “grief art” comes in the form of poetry or song lyrics.
While thumbing through some of my favorite melancholic poetry, I remembered one I’d read after experiencing a short period of hardship my second year in Japan. Fifteen years later, I am far enough removed to realize the value of Mary Oliver’s words from her work “The Uses of Sorrow”:
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
I am not sure if I need to see every frustrating period, or my personal boxes of darkness as a “gift”, but I appreciate that she offers both hope, and honesty in her imagery and commentary about human resilience. Her experience is certainly something I want to connect with... sometimes.
As I am a textile and “threads person” I was also particularly interested and moved by the work of Janet Haigh, especially her “Make it Through the Night” collection of embroidery.
Moving a needle is therapeutic. When wading through difficulty, each stitch feels like a choice to self soothe, and an accomplishment. As a fellow needle moving creature, I can imagine the thread sliding through the cotton and washing away the feeling of helplessness we’re often left with when bad things happen, even if it is only temporary relief.
While the imagery in Haigh’s work is beautiful, I think much can also be said also for the simple act of mending when we’re distraught. It is an intentional action that makes something whole again. While it often takes more time to mend a broken heart or body, this mental and physical exercise reminds us to practice gratitude and that we are actually quite powerful even when we feel we are not.
There are even many organizations and clubs teaching people to mend their clothing as an act of loving and honoring our own history. One particular organization in the netherlands called “The Golden Joinery” that harnesses the philosophy of the Japanese art of “KinTsugi” and teaches their members how to mend beloved clothing items with gold thread, as the head of the organization Margeet Sweerts told Vox magazine: “there can be beauty in a flaw, a golden scar. It is a sign of life, it tells the story and history of a piece.”
I’ll end with some of my personal offerings to grief.
In my last year at university I had some very confusing and unfortunate moments that left me feeling completely unable to understand the motivations of others, especially men. For my senior show I ended up doing a series of prints about the way men posture, to perhaps gain some sort of insight. This is one of those prints. Looking at them singularly isn’t very impactful, but as a student, I felt the entire series hung together spoke to my intention.
One might ask, “why would you want to make something that reminds you of a bad experience? I’ve been told repeatedly that when bad things happen, I should focus on what I can control. This usually makes me angry, because it feels invalidating, but I suppose it functions as the insensitive version of the advice I might give myself after the flood of emotion recedes. I can control my creative intention, my marks on a page, and most importantly crafting an image, or a piece of artwork is lovingly attending to my own trauma, in the same way a parent might tend to a child. I can take the reminder of the bad experience and turn it into a way I took care of me.
Still life drawing and painting feels like another controlled opportunity to process emotions in a way that doesn’t demand a heavy heart, and can be re-interpreted later, when the moment has passed.
There is satisfaction in taking objects that may or may not be charged and creating a narrative that only I can hear. The composition might be about anger, asking forgiveness, seeking help, enacting revenge or just finding some version of peace. No one has to know how I’m feeling, or what the drawing is “really about”, and the viewer is free to decide what it means based on their own life experiences.
I scribbled this in my studio one morning. It's merely an awkward little pot, and a cone of yarn on a book with some crumpled up paper (very poorly drawn, and very unfinished) but to me, that is not important, I focused solely on the conversation between the objects. This charcoal drawing certainly isn’t bound for any sort of exhibition, but I was happy to just sit in front of an easel, and run my hands over the paper. No matter if the work is “good” or not, so long as it served it’s purpose in the moment. Sadness and grief sometimes lead me to forget who I am, and this was a simple way to bring me back to centre.
This summer I read a book called “Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Can Make us Whole” by Susan Cain. While the entire book was quite self affirming, toward the end Cain left me with an indelible piece of encouragement that felt like something I’d heard a million times before, but never quite succinct enough to stuff into my life’s tool box.
"Whatever pain you can't get rid of, make it your creative offering."
During this round of difficulty, I tried to make a little time to put that to use.
While grief doesn’t serve any clear purpose to our better survival, it is the proof that we have loved, and proof that we exist…
And just like the artwork people create to cope, maybe that is beautiful, too.